Magazine article Communication World

When Is a Deadline Not Really a Deadline: Yes, Deadlines Are a Part of Life. but How Many of Them Are Necessary?

Magazine article Communication World

When Is a Deadline Not Really a Deadline: Yes, Deadlines Are a Part of Life. but How Many of Them Are Necessary?

Article excerpt

I first met Kevin Heinrichs when he was working for Petro-Canada. He attended a writing seminar I conducted in Vancouver, British Columbia, and at one of the breaks, he showed me his company's employee publication, In Brief.

It wasn't bad--I've seen a lot worse--but it wasn't very good, either. The stories were straight news pieces with very little voice or personality. There weren't many interesting stories about Petro-Canada people. And it had just about every bad photo you can imagine: grip-and-grins, executions at dawn (where you line a team up against a wall and "shoot" them), people holding plaques and employees pretending to work while not looking at the camera.

To his credit, Kevin, who's a brilliant editor, knew In Brief needed work. "But the thing is, I just don't have time," he told me. "We put this publication out twice a month, so I'm always scrambling to make the deadline. That's why I take pretty much any content or photo I can get."

The question, to me, was obvious:

"Why do you put it out twice a month?" I asked.

And, of course, Kevin's answer was the one you hear far too often:

"I don't know," he said. "It's just the way we've always done it."

In Brief got its start back in the days when print was the primary communication vehicle at most organizations. As such, you needed a high frequency in order to keep up with the news flow. But things have changed a lot since then. Namely, a little something called the Internet, and its lesser-known cousin, the intranet, started dominating how people communicate. Intranets especially are much faster and timelier than print, and they do a much better job at reporting any "news."

So my advice to Kevin was simple: Stop trying to do too much. Even at twice a month, you can't break any news with a print publication. E-mail, intranets, face-to-face communication, even the technology-turbocharged employee grapevine will always beat you to the story. So come out less often, and give yourself time to do a better publication.

In other words, communicate less, but communicate better.

Kevin did just that. He had the courage to blow the publication up and start over. He changed In Brief to In Depth, a glorious, four-color, quarterly magazine that gave him the time and the space to flex his substantial creative muscles.

In Depth featured stunning photos (my favorite is of a ship moving an iceberg away from an offshore drilling facility, with this caption: "How to wrestle icebergs in the North Atlantic"), feature stories loaded with personality and voice, and stories about Petro-Canada employees that made even the most boring business topics interesting.

In short, the new magazine looked, felt and read like a consumer magazine dedicated to the company, which is the highest praise an internal editor can get.

Since then, Petro-Canada has merged with Suncorp, and Kevin is now in charge of that employee publication. In Depth is no longer around, but its legacy remains, and the lesson we can learn from Kevin's story is still true today: Don't let fake deadlines cripple your ability to do creative communications.

Are you on deadline? Really?

One of the things I talk about a lot in my seminars is that communicators spend too much time fighting the wrong battles. Two of the most common are the battle to make the deadline and the battle to create something--anything!--that will make it safely through the approval process. …

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